A few months after packing all my crap and moving from Tupelo, MS, to North Carolina, I find myself in a Sears, in a mall in the town of Hickory. I was just casually hanging out near the men’s section while my fiancée, Ashley, was off looking for pajamas, when I happened to notice some really nice chenille sweaters on sale. Now, I’m not a huge clothes shopper, and frankly I don’t know chenille from shinola, but I know what I like, and what I like are nice thick comfy sweaters and cheap. To my delight, these thick nice comfy sweaters were 50 percent off. It was a sweet deal, and I was easily able to find two sweaters that fit the above exacting standards. With my newfound prizes under one arm, I made what can be argued as either a fortunate discovery or the biggest mistake of the day, while attempting to pay for them.
These days, retail cashiers are not only assigned the task of taking your money in exchange for goods and services, they’re also charged with the unholy mission of being walking talking telemarketers. It’s not enough that you’re purchasing something from their store, they must see to it that you become indebted to their store as well.
As I attempted to pay for my sweaters with a credit card—already revealing my willingness to become indebted—the cashier informed me that were I to sign up for a Sears charge card right then and there I would be able to save a whole ten bucks on my purchase. Usually, I view such offers with the same attitude I save for actual telemarketers, which is: I don’t want your stinkin card, nor did I ask for it, so hang up and leave me alone, you cruel and heartless monsters. However, being a cheap bastard, it seemed fair enough to trade a little of my time and some space in my wallet for a free sweater. Against my better judgment, I agreed. While the cashier was firing up the credit-approval engine, she asked to see proof of my identity in the form of a driver’s license.
I should point out at this juncture that, having been in North Carolina for the better part of four months, I still had not swung by Ye Olde DMV to pick up a North Carolina driver’s license. Partially, this was because of the blood-curdling tales I’ve heard about the NC DMV, but mostly this was because I haven’t gotten enough use out of my old Mississippi license. For you see, when choosing the date of departure from Tupelo, I thought it would be cool and maybe even ironic to leave on my birthday, September 2. Easy enough to do, except that my Mississippi driver’s license happened to expire on that date as well. My father pointed out to me that if I was to be within the law while driving a moving van filled with all my crap across country, I needed to get a new one before I left. At the time I figured the $10 it cost would be a good investment. That is, until I showed up at the Tupelo DMV and discovered the state had raised the price to $20. I gritted my teeth, paid them their money, had the required really awful photo taken and left with a new license. To make matters worse, I didn’t even get pulled over on the way to North Carolina, so it was hardly money well spent. I had secretly vowed that I wouldn’t set foot in a DMV again until I’d gotten my $20 worth out of that stupid card.
Back at Sears, I dug out my crusty old brown leather wallet and dug out the thick sheaf of plastic cards stored in one of its pockets and began leafing through them in search of my driver’s license. I passed credit cards, video store membership cards, a Sam’s Club card, a United Blood Service card, some phone cards, my social security card, gas cards, a J.C. Penney credit card, a bank card, two Media Play gift cards and lastly my old expired Mississippi driver’s license—which had not been taken from me back at the Tupelo DMV. Didn’t see the new license in there, though. I must have missed it. I flipped back through the cards again and still came up empty on the new license. Next I methodically went card by card, turning each over no matter how certain I was of its identity to make sure it wasn’t my new license. No dice. Then I started searching through other pockets in the wallet, and then in the money section, and then back through the cards again and still couldn’t find it. This was not good. If it wasn’t in there, then I’ve been driving around illegally for God knows how long. And I couldn’t get my free sweater!
Ashley came to my rescue by agreeing to take on the potential debt of a Sears card so that I could get my discount and my sweaters. Minutes later, the cashier informed her that she would also have to take on actual debt on that new card since they couldn’t let me pay for my sweaters and get the discount, nor could she put it on one of her other cards. Fine. Whatever. It was the least of my worries, because I was fretting about my missing license. For in order to get to my place of employment, I have to drive an hour to Charlotte, NC, through highway-patrol invested roads. I needed a driver’s license and had no idea where my new one could be if not in my wallet. It looked like a trip to the DMV was in order. But what of the horrifying tales I’d heard about the kind of arcane requirements the NC DMV forces upon the driving public? Such tortures as requiring you purchase a North Carolina license plate and inspection sticker before granting you a drivers license were common rumors. I didn’t have any of that stuff and getting it would likely involve trips to the circuit clerk’s office and they would probably require a valid driver’s license before handing them over, no doubt. Ash suggested we drop by the local DMV and actually ask them what the requirements were before we worked ourselves into a froth.
In most DMVs I’ve been to, there is a perpetual crowd of miserable people filling the lobby, all waiting their turn on the medieval rack. Oddly, though, there was only one guy waiting in the Hickory DMV, and he might have been a custodian. One of the DMV clerks, a bald man in the standard blue highway patrol uniform, left his desk and swaggered over to the counter to get a gander at the two jerks foolish enough to darken his door. As Ashley explained that we were from Mississippi and wanted to know what the requirements were for getting a North Carolina driver’s license, the man’s mouth slowly cocked to one side in an ugly smirk.
“You’ll need to have proof of insurance and take both the written and eye exams here,” he deadpanned. “And, of course, you’ll need a Mississippi driver’s license.” Was it just me, or did he hike his smirk up even more for the part about needing a license?
“Well what if we’ve lost our license?” Ashley said.
“You’ve both lost your licenses?” he said, smirking higher. I decided to step in at this point, because it was my lost license, after all, and because this guy probably thought we were trying to obtain a license under false pretenses—like criminals were really breaking down the DMV’s door to be given the 5th degree like this. I explained what had happened at Sears and how I had only my expired Mississippi license to show for it. Officer Smirk seemed a little perplexed at this. After a while, he asked to see the expired license. I dug it out of my wallet and gave it to him. He turned it over a couple of times, smirked at it, read the fine print on the back, checked to see if I was in fact the same guy in the required really awful photo, then smirked at me.
“This only expired in September,” he opened. “It’s not been expired for over a year,” he reiterated. “We can take it if it’s not been expired for over a year,” he summed up. I was starting to think this might not be so bad. After all, their requirements didn’t seem extreme. I passed a written driving test twelve years ago, so I surely could ace one again. Plus, I had insurance and could prove it if necessary. No worries.
“But,” Officer Smirk said, breaking my reverie. “I’m gonna need to know what this doubleyew stands for.” He was pointing to the W in the Eric W. Fritzius on my expired license.
“Sure thing,” I said. “It stands for Wade.”
“Well now,” Officer Smirk said, with more evil satisfaction than absolutely necessary. “I’m gonna need some form of identification for that.”
In this country, the most common form of photo identification, surpassing even the passport, is the driver’s license. My expired Mississippi driver’s license plainly stated what my name is, what I look like and did so in a handy, difficult to illegally alter format. And now the good word of my expired Mississippi driver’s license was not going to be enough for North Carolina? Not good enough for a state that is frequently behind Mississippi and even Arkansas in standard of living, teen pregnancy, literacy and domestic abuse rankings? I very nearly growled at the man, but instead dug out my wallet and began the Quest for Wade. It was, naturally, futile. None of my cards had anything more than an initial. Not my bank cards, my insurance cards, nor any of my credit cards—not that Officer Smirk would have accepted them anyway, as he only so readily pointed out. Even my Social Security card carried only a W. Now if an initial is good enough for a federal agency like the Social Security Administration, then what kind of audacity and stickuptheassedness does it take for the Hickory, NC, DMV to demand otherwise? As a last ditch effort, I went out to my car and got the registration from the glove compartment, brought it back and pointed out the three places on it where it clearly stated “Eric W. Fritzius,” demonstrating that even the motor vehicle registration people didn’t give a rat’s ass about initials. Officer Smirk looked at it unsympathetically and shrugged. It occurred to me to point out to him that this sort of thing was the very reason why folks go nuts and start shooting up civil services agencies. Before I could, though, Ashley stepped in.
One of the most fortunate aspects of my relationship with Ashley is that when the need presents itself we operate a lot like tag team wrestlers. During stressful moments, when I’m just on the verge of verbally tearing some poor soul a new orifice, Ash tags me out and jumps into the ring in my place. She can then proceed to verbally tear them a new orifice in such a calm, polite and non-vulgar manner that they often don’t notice it until the next time they use the bathroom.
“Okay,” Ashley told Smirk. “None of his ID has the Wade spelled out. How are we supposed to fix this?” Now this may not read like a blistering verbal attack, but it was said in a tone of voice that stated, in layers of subtlety unlikely to be perceived by one such as Officer Smirk, that not only was he a complete, mouth-breathing, moron but so was his dog and so were the guys who had come up with this policy in the first place, and their dogs too. It was an award-worthy performance, and we both patiently awaited Officer Smirk’s response.
We only thought he’d been smirking before. Now the left side of his mouth lifted clean up over his brow, nearly obscuring the look of demonic glee in his eye. “Well, you could go up to the Social Security office and have them give you a printout of your file,” he managed to say through his wildly contorted lips. His tone too held many depths. They stated that even though Officer Smirk was very good at his job as an unhelpful DMV clerk, he actually aspired to be an unhelpful Social Security Administration clerk, where they really had being unhelpful down to an art form. He was only too happy to give us directions how to get there.
It was nearly four o’clock by the time we reached the Social Security office. The enormous crowd of miserable people I’d been expecting at the DMV had apparently been sent ahead of us to the S.S.—and it’s not called the S.S. for nothing. The lobby was a cramped, dingy-beige-painted little room filled with rows of mis-matched vinyl-covered chairs that were probably new during the Johnson administration. Against one wall was a little table above which were several posters of fine print and a small cardboard display holding some kind of forms. Near the table was a wooden podium atop which was a small basket full of plastic cards with numbers printed on them. Next to the basket was a sign instructing us to take a number temporarily, but not to keep it and take it home with us. Beyond the podium was a door leading to, from what brief glimpses I could get over the time that followed, a brightly lit room full of desks and worker-bees. Set into the wall by the door were three ticket-booth style windows, only one of which was open and contained a female Social Security clerk behind it.
We took a number and joined the enormous crowd of miserable people. Our number was seven. After about ten minutes, the clerk called “Number one!” and one of the miserable people stood and went to the window and conversed with the clerk lady for quite some time. The miserable people around me were muttering about how slow the service was and how long they had been there already. Others freely passed stale sandwiches, and thermoses full of cold coffee to each other and then unrolled their sleeping bags in preparation for the frigid night ahead.
After a very long time, one of the other ticket windows opened and a second clerk lady appeared behind it and called “Number two!” Opening a second window seemed like a pretty progressive move. Like when grocery store managers saw how many people were waiting in line and add a second cashier to speed things up. Alas, no. As soon as the second lady appeared, the first one went on break and disappeared. I didn’t care, though, for I was mercifully distracted from my pain and misfortune because Mojo Nixon had just walked through the door.
Okay, it probably wasn’t actually grizzled, folk-rock, troubadour Mojo Nixon, the famed singer behind such classic hits as “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child” and “Don Henley Must Die”, but damn if he didn’t look exactly like him. Mojo took a number and then a seat and served as a source of entertainment for my fevered imagination as the minutes droned on.
Numbers 3 and 4 were called within a ten-minute period, and the first clerk lady did eventually come back from her break. Number 5 was actually one of the mumbling complainers from the row in front of me. What I gathered from the mumbler’s conversation with the clerk was that her mother had been having problems with her Social Security service. The mumbler had already called several times before, but had been told she would have to come there in person. As it turns out, though, the Social Security office had actually meant for the mumbler’s mother, a near blind, deaf and bedridden woman, to personally come to the office and schedule an appointment to come back later. The mumbler—no longer mumbling—explained to the clerk about the whole bed-ridden, blind, deaf thing, the impracticality of such a suggestion, and that the reason she herself had been calling them so frequently was to inform them of this so they would stop sending letters insisting that the mother had to turn up for an interview.
The clerk lady listened to all this, then said, “Well, she’s going to have to make an appointment.”
I lost track of that conversation because I was being scared out of my wits by someone else. This someone else was a very disgruntled looking fellow who came through the door wearing a knitted skull-cap and a big black leather jacket. The scary part was that one of his hands was thrust deep into the side pocket of the jacket and the pocket looked roomy enough to carry both his hand and large caliber firearm quite comfortably.
Oh damn, I thought. These twisted bureaucrats have finally pissed off the wrong guy and it’s just my luck that I get stuck here on the day he’s gonna rain hot liquid death upon all concerned! He’d probably already cleaned out the DMV!
The man didn’t start firing immediately, though, but instead took a seat directly behind mine. Great! Now I wouldn’t be able to see the hot liquid death before it was rained upon me.
“Number Seven!” the clerk lady called.
“That’s me! Right here. Me,” I said, leaping to the counter. I explained the situation with Officer Smirk to the clerk, hoping I wasn’t staring in the face of further hassle. I was wrong.
“You’ll have to fill out a form,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the cardboard display of forms on the table. At that point my ears shut down and I didn’t hear any more of the clerk’s words. All I could think was: A fudgin’ form?! I’d had plenty of fudgin’ time to fill out a fudgin’ form during my half hour wait with the miserable fudgin’ people. Perhaps if there’d been a sign letting DMVictims know that they had to fill out a fudgin’ form then maybe I’d have fudgin’ filled the fudger out ahead of time. And now I’d probably have to take another fudgin’ number! Fudge! (Okay, so I watched all 12 hours of A Christmas Story on TNT this year. Mind your own fudgin’ business!)
While I was still ranting inwardly, Ashley pulled me away from the window and toward the table with the forms. I thought maybe there would be a specialized form for DMVictims, but there wasn’t. Anything you wanted to take up with the Social Security administration was done using one stock form. The form merely wanted you to fill in your life story complete with every name, address and number of yourself and anyone you’ve ever met. Strangely, it only took me a few minutes to fill out. And we didn’t even have to take another number to turn in the form. The clerk lady let us cut in front of Mojo Nixon, who seemed only slightly put out by it, and she quickly gave us a print out of the necessary information Officer Smirk wanted.
When we got back to the DMV, there was, of course, another enormous crowd of miserable people in the lobby and all the DMV clerks, including Officer Smirk, were busy. We had to take a number and wait. Fortunately, it was number 1, and a very nice DMV clerk lady called us over within thirty seconds of sitting down. We marveled at our good fortune of having somehow broken the laws of time, space and bureaucracy by jumping ahead of all the miserable people. And even though this seemed unfair, we weren’t gonna drag ass getting to the counter.
We got everything taken care of promptly. I took my eye test and my written test and passed with 83 percent correct, so my record as a solid C student remained untarnished. The nice lady had me sign my signature on a card and take the required really awful picture and within a few minutes I had a crisp new driver’s license. For some reason, my normally illegible signature not only remained illegible on the card but had partially disappeared in the shrinking process.
“Hope you don’t have any problems with that signature,” the man who handed over the license said. His tone suggested he knew I would have trouble and that it was somehow my fault that their machine had eaten half my signature. We asked him what sort of trouble we should expect.
“Well, you’re supposed to sign your first and last name,” he answered.
“That’s what I did!”
“I dunno,” the man said. “It could be you’ll have problems… But maybe not,” he added ominously.
“Well at least we’ll know who to sue when we do,” I said, and we walked out the door.